Movie Review: Emma

Screenwriter Eleanor Catton has produced a streamlined version of Jane Austen’s classic novel, Emma. While significant chunks are missing, the final product is a delightful, easy-to-follow film with most of the dialogue left intact.

Anya Taylor-Joy delivers an excellent performance as Emma Woodhouse, a 21-year-old busybody who enjoys meddling in other people’s lives. After successfully arranging the marriage of her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), to widower Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), Emma decides to pair her friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) with the local vicar (Josh O’Connor).

A series of comical (and not-so-comical) misadventures follow, and Harriet ends up with a bruised heart.

Disappointed by the turn of events, long-time friend George Knightly (Johnny Flynn) chastises Emma, commenting: “Vanity on a weak mind produces every kind of mischief.”

Undaunted, Emma turns her attention toward new arrivals Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) and Frank Churchill (Callum Turner). Often thoughtless, sometimes even cruel, Emma continues to poke her nose in other people’s affairs. One particular barb sets in motion Emma’s unraveling. Ashamed and embarrassed, she tries to atone for her behavior. And, in the process, she falls in love.

Bill Nighy steals every scene in which he appears as Emma’s father.

Definitely light fare and a welcome distraction during these challenging times.

Movie Review: I Still Believe

Based on the memoir of Christian music star Jeremy Camp (K. J. Apa), I Still Believe chronicles the singer’s whirlwind romance with Melissa Henning (Britt Robertson).

Jeremy, a musically-gifted student from a financially-strapped Indiana family, meets his hero, Jean-Luc La Joie (Nathan Parsons), within hours of arriving at Calvary Chapel Bible College in Southern California. Flattered and somewhat amused by Jeremy’s enthusiasm, the successful Christian rocker takes him under his wing.

Thrilled to have Jean-Luc as a mentor, Jeremy quickly absorbs all his advice and begins writing “love songs to God—mostly to God.” Jeremy also becomes smitten by Melissa, a special friend of Jean-Luc’s. A romantic triangle involving Jean-Luc, Jeremy, and Melissa takes up much of the first act. When the truth emerges, there are hurt feelings and awkwardness but no passionate or violent episodes.

The characters reconcile when Melissa is diagnosed with Stage 3C ovarian cancer.

At age twenty, Jeremy takes a semester off. He stands by Melissa throughout chemo, surgeries, public and private praying sessions, remission, and a beautiful beach wedding. In the third act, the cancer return, and Jeremy experiences a spiritual crisis.

I was most impressed by Apa’s performance. He did his own singing and playing of Jeremy Camp’s real-life compositions. My favorite: the title track, his tribute to Melissa.

I would have liked more scenes with Jeremy’s parents (Gary Sinise and Shania Twain). While Gary Sinise delivers one emotional father-and-son scene toward the end of the film, Shania Twain remains in the background. A long-time fan, I would have loved to hear her sing one song with Jeremy.

An appearance by the real-life Jeremy Camp, his second wife, and three children brought an effective end to the roller-coaster of emotions.

An uplifting film!

Movie Review: The Way Back

Ben Affleck delivers an excellent performance as Jack Cunningham, a hard-drinking former basketball star who reluctantly accepts the position of head coach at his alma mater.

As the storyline unfolds, we learn that Jack walked away from a full sports scholarship and hasn’t picked up a basketball in almost 25 years. His life has settled into a predictable routine: days at a construction job followed by evenings at Harold’s Bar and more alcohol at home. He is so dependent that he even brings a can of beer into the shower.

As soon as Jack accepts the coaching position, he becomes involved in the lives of the players and succeeds in motivating the underdog squad of ten players. A winning streak follows with impressively choreographed basketball scenes.

Jack still drinks too much, and his short-fuse temper is easily triggered during tense moments. Despite reprimands from the team chaplain, Jack can’t control his constant use of profanities.

Viewed as a savior, Jack appears to be well on the road to redemption. Until life—in the form of resurrected past demons—rears its ugly head. What follows is backtracking, a major disappointment, and an accident.

A longtime fan of sports movies, I fully expected Jack to take the team to the final championship game. Instead, co-writer and director Gavin O’Connor chose a different trajectory for Jack Cunningham, one that is a better “fit” for the imperfect coach struggling to overcome past mistakes and insecurities.

A thought-provoking film!

Movie Review: Just Mercy

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx deliver stellar performances in this thought-provoking film based on a real-life injustice in Alabama.

A Harvard law graduate, Bryan Stevenson (Jordan), declines several lucrative jobs and heads to Alabama. There, he agrees to help local advocate Eva Ansley (well played by Brie Larson) run the Equal Justice Initiative. Their mission: Defend anyone who has been wrongly condemned or not given proper representation.

After interviewing inmates at Holman Prison, Bryan hones in on Walter McMillian (Foxx), a timber cutter who has been convicted of murdering a white teenage girl. At first reticent, Walter eventually accepts Bryan’s help.

From the start, it is clear that Walter, aka “Johnny D,” has been victimized by the Alabama justice system. Friends and family members, who could provide alibis, were not allowed to testify. The entire case was based on the coerced testimony of a convicted felon (Tim Blake Nelson).

Bryan maintains a steely reserve and tenacity as he battles against the covert and overt racism of the small town. I marveled at his ability to rise above the many roadblocks he encounters in his quest for justice.

I was surprised by the behavior of the other inmates on death row. While they can’t see each other, they do indulge in friendly banter between the bars and walls of their confinement. I would have liked more details about Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran who planted a bomb on a woman’s porch while suffering from PTSD.

Highly recommended!

Movie Review: Richard Jewell

Described as a “wrong man thriller,” this film tells the story of the security guard (brilliantly played by Paul Walter Hauser) who was hailed a hero when he discovered a pipe bomb during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

That fame lasted only three days.

A tip from a former employer alerts the FBI to the possibility that Richard Jewell could have planted the bomb himself. An inappropriate leak to Atlanta Journal reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) sets in motion a downward spiral of events. What follows are 88 days of intense scrutiny from the FBI and vilification by the press and public.

I watched with horror as the FBI attempts to railroad an innocent man, albeit one who does fit the profile of the lone bomber. Single and still living with his mother (Kathy Bates), Jewell appears slow on the uptake and overly-zealous in his policing work. He takes his rent-a-cop job very seriously and often butts heads with co-workers and supervisors.

Desperate for help, Jewell reaches out to feisty libertarian lawyer Watson Bryant (well played by Sam Rockwell). Despite his inexperience in criminal law, Bryant guides his naïve and childlike client, urging him to fight back against the flawed American justice system.

Respectful of authority and loyal to a fault, Jewell appears differential and accommodating throughout most of the film. In the third act, he finally stands up for himself and forces the FBI to drop all charges.

Unfortunately, there are still people out there who believe Richard Jewell was guilty of placing that bomb that injured 100 people and killed two.

A thought-provoking film from director Clint Eastwood.

Note: Richard Jewell is available on DVD.

Movie Reviews: Harriet, Parasite, and 1917

Each year, I try to watch all the nominated films before award season. I fell short this year but made up for it last week when I watched three of the Oscar-nominated movies: Harriet, Parasite, and 1917. Inspired and impressed by this diverse trio of movies, I decided to write and share my reviews:

Actress, singer and songwriter Cynthia Erivo delivers a stellar performance, one that is truly worthy of the nominations garnered during the recent award season. Erivo embraces the multi-faceted role of the legendary Harriet Tubman, a woman who is considered one of America’s greatest heroes

Born a slave on a Maryland plantation and known by the name Araminta “Minty” Ross, she decides to flee to the North. Miraculously, she survives the journey (over 100 miles) and makes her way to Philadelphia. There, she is assisted by abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Junior) and boarding-room owner Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe).

After taking the “freedom” name of Harriet Tubman, she becomes part of the Underground Railroad, repeatedly risking her life to return to the South and ferry over 70 slaves to freedom.

I was most impressed by the scenes showcasing Harriet’s ability to hear nothing other than her own inner voice. In stressful situations, Harriet loses consciousness as she slips into spells, which she describes as “consulting with God.” Afterward, she emerges with an ironclad sense of the action and direction to be taken during rescue missions. These amazing feats earned her nickname “Moses.”

An extraordinary tale of an American freedom fighter!

Described as a “pitch-black modern fairy tale,” Parasite has won numerous awards, among them four Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film.

Interested in examining relationships between different classes under capitalism, director and screenwriter Bong Joon Ho created an upstairs-downstairs tale involving the wealthy Parks and the street-smart Kims.

A twenty-something drifter Kim Ki-woo jumps at the chance to teach English to the teenage daughter of Mr. Park, a celebrated tech entrepreneur. Renamed Kevin by his status-conscious employers, Ki-woo hatches a plan to bring the rest of his unemployed family into the Park’s spacious, multi-level house. Father Ki-taek is the new driver, mother Chung-sook is the new housekeeper, and sister Ki-jung is the art tutor/therapist.

Determined to maintain their anonymity and successfully “con” the Parks, the Kims forge documents, invent aliases, and rehearse their lines. Bordering on preposterous, these schemes provide much of the dark humor in the film.

Gainfully employed, the Kims dare to dream about a different kind of future, one worlds away from their stinkbug and mildew-infested basement apartment. Unfortunately, those hopes and aspirations are quickly shattered. Without giving too much away, I will only say that several unexpected (surprising, shocking, and even horrific) twists to the storyline alter the trajectories of all the characters.

In a recent interview, Bong Joon Ho discussed the significance of the title. While most people would attribute the word “parasite” to the poor Kim family that has infiltrated the rich household, the director has a different viewpoint. He suggests that the members of the rich Park family could also be considered parasites. Unable to drive, cook, wash dishes, or study independently, they are forced to leech off the poor.

A must-see film that will linger in consciousness.

Director Sam Mendes has incorporated anecdotes from his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who fought in World War 1.

Two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are given a seemingly impossible mission: Cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop the following day’s deadly attack on 1600 soldiers. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) has selected Blake because his brother is part of that battalion.

What follows is a journey into a wasteland of twisted barbed wire, corpses, and shell craters as Schofield and Blake make their way deep into the German trenches. While the former front line has been abandoned, there are still many dangers the two men must face.

It seems like only one camera has been used, closely following Blake and Schofield as they embark on this perilous journey. I could feel the tension and suspense as they sidestepped booby traps, encountered German soldiers, and ran through burning buildings.

While the story of two young men attempting to stop a doomed attack is a compelling one, it would have helped to include more historical context. Also, I would have liked more scenes with the senior officers and the Frenchwoman in the deserted building. Those cameos moved a bit too quickly.

A dramatic and powerful film!

Movie Trailers

Harriet | Parasite | 1917

Note: Harriet and Parasite are available on DVD.

Movie Review: Little Women

Director/Writer Greta Gerwig brings fresh relevance to the storyline of an American classic that has stood the test of time for over 150 years.

Having read Little Women several times and watched two previous film versions, I had a good grasp of the plot and characters. Four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy—face the challenges of growing up in a financially-strapped home in the aftermath of the Civil War.

While author Louisa May Alcott reveals the exploits of the sisters in a linear fashion, Gerwig plays with the timeline, moving back and forth over a seven-year period.

Instead of starting with Alcott’s famous first sentence, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” Gerwig opens with a grown-up Jo (Saoirse Ronan) discussing her writing with a New York publisher.

This simple rearrangement of the plot establishes a major theme of the film: A woman’s search for artistic freedom. It also introduces Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) as a more vibrant, attractive suitor than the disheveled older gentleman who suddenly appears midway through the novel.

Once established, the momentum of the film never lets up.

As the adult March sisters forge their individual career/relationship paths, well-placed flashbacks to their high-spirited early days provide insights into their dreams and struggles with issues of gender and freedom.

This film features the best young actresses of our time (interestingly enough all are international). In addition to Ronan’s brilliant portrayal of the fiery tomboy Jo, Florence Pugh delivers a feisty and magnetic Amy, and Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen infuse Meg and Beth with warmth and wit.

Laura Dern adds a unique dimension to Marmee (matriarch of the clan). Usually depicted as a quiet, self-sacrificing character, Marmee confesses, “I’m angry nearly every day of my life.”

A fan of great cinematic pairings, Gerwig couldn’t resist pairing Ronan with Timothée Chalamet as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Both actors delivered excellent performances in Lady Bird.

A sprinkle of Hollywood royalty, aka Meryl Streep as the imperious Aunt March, adds acerbic humor to this delightful period piece.

Highly recommended!

Movie Review: Knives Out

Described as a whodunit for the Trump era, Knives Out brims with A-list actors, plot twists, and red herrings.

The film opens with a dead body. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a bestselling mystery author, is found with his throat cut in an upstairs den of a large, sprawling Victorian mansion.

The scene quickly shifts to Harlan’s dysfunctional family. Everyone from his realtor daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) to his moody and jealous youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) to his lifestyle guru daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) to his playboy grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) is a suspect.

From start to finish, I enjoyed watching these schemers and dreamers alternate between grief, guilt, and entitlement with their self-serving lies, black humor, and squabbling.

As for the help…Harlan’s trusted caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas) assumes a central role when flamboyant Louisiana investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) makes Marta his sidekick. An intriguing character, Marta, possesses an unusual propensity for vomiting whenever she utters a falsehood.

In a series of well-placed flashbacks, writer and director Rian Johnson reveals the events that led to Harlan’s untimely death. But there are holes (doughnut holes according to Benoit) in this investigation. Determined to solve the murder, Benoit often says one thing and then does another. When first introduced, he informs the family: “You will find me a quiet, passive observer of the truth.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

This dazzling murder mystery has already garnered three Golden Globe nominations in the Comedy genre: Best Actor (Daniel Craig), Best Actress (Ana de Armas), and Best Motion Picture.

A must-see film!

Movie Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Tom Hanks delivers a stellar performance as Mister Rogers, the popular children’s television host and America’s most beloved neighbor. Hanks nails the details from the bushy eyebrows and flat silver hair to the red cardigan to the folksy singsong voice. Even the ties that Hanks wears once belonged to Fred Rogers (they were donated by his widow).

The movie was filmed in the same Pittsburgh studio where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was shot, using some of the same crew and cameras.

For almost two hours, I was transported to a kinder, gentler time: pre-9/1l and one year before the Columbine Massacre. Inspired by a magazine article published in 1998, the film explores the friendship between Fred Rogers and cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (well played by Matthew Rhys). Note: Lloyd Vogel is a fictionalized version of real-life journalist Tom Junod.

Assigned to write a brief (400-word) profile of an American hero by his hard-nosed editor (Christine Lahti), Vogel chafes at the task but grudgingly agrees to interview Mister Rogers. What should have been a quick, 20-minute interview evolves into an intense relationship between the two men. As Vogel spends more time with Mister Rogers, he starts opening up about his personal and family challenges.

While this film isn’t a Fred Rogers biopic, it does reveal the essence of the entertainer. We learn that he had a temper and dealt with anger by reading scripture, swimming, and pounding on the bass register of the piano. His adult sons gave him plenty of grief during their adolescent years.

When Vogel asks Joanne Rogers (Maryann Plunkett) how it feels to live with a saint, she immediately dispels that notion. But there is an authenticity and genuine interest in the lives of other people, especially those who are broken.

In a recent interview, Director Marielle Heller commented, “There’s a reason that everyone feels so connected to him…Some collective consciousness thing where we all want Mister Rogers in our lives right now, myself included.”

A must-see film!

Movie Review: Last Christmas

Set in London during the first Christmas season after the Brexit referendum, Last Christmas is a musical holiday movie loosely plotted around the George Michael hit of the same name.

Kate/Katarina (Emilia Clarke) is a 20-something aspiring actress whose life is a hot mess. Struggling to recover from a serious health scare, Kate’s flakiness and klutzy behavior test the patience of friends and family members. Kate’s attempts to land an acting role fall short, forcing her to maintain her “elf” position at a year-round Christmas shop run by a bossy, sharp-tongued Santa (Michelle Yeoh).

Amid this angst, handsome and mysterious Tom (Henry Golding) walks into Kate’s life.

At first reticent, Kate opens up to Tom. She enjoys their “dates,” a series of unique excursions, among them a secret garden walk and an ice-skating lesson. Tom encourages Kate to always “look up” and catch the little bits of magic. He also introduces Kate to a nearby soup kitchen, populated by an eccentric group of street folk.

When Kate starts volunteering at the local shelter, she experiences a shift of perspective and returns to her family home. Not much has changed on the home front. Her mother (Emma Thompson) bemoans her circumstances while her father (Boris Isakovic) maintains as much distance as possible from his wife.

Kate’s parents have struggled financially and culturally since fleeing the war in Yugoslavia. Watching the Brexit news further alarms Kate’s mother, who is convinced they will be forced to leave England.

Imagining herself in love with Tom, Kate becomes frustrated when he starts to take distance. Spoiler alert: Prepare for a twist in the narrative.

A delightful holiday movie that skillfully combines romantic comedy, fantasy, excellent performances, and the music of George Michael.